Education Minister Hekia Parata is eager to promote change in New Zealand schools. She has pushed digital technology into the curriculum, though in a limited way. She wants to reform the way funds get to children with special needs. Her latest initiative is to open up online learning to approved providers who can offer lessons through a laptop.
Given that these changes involve the education sector, all have attracted criticism. But that does not mean they shouldn't proceed. E-learning already occurs in the existing correspondence school, Te Aho o Te Kura Pounamu. Under the legislation that creates online learning communities, Te Kura, which has nearly 23,000 students, will become the first fully fledged provider, and most probably face some competition for its huge roll.
This provides a safeguard for monitoring and reviewing the changes Parata advocates as the school is well-established, and will be attractive for cyber companies given the size of the student market.
Besides Te Kura, schools have moved into the online field without waiting for law changes. Around 3000 pupils study through 'virtual learning networks', digital classrooms set up by small rural schools so they could offer older children tuition that might not otherwise be available. According to the Education Ministry students are performing in these limited arrangements, and the schools themselves have helped secure their futures.
The message here is that change is occurring, and bricks-and-mortar schools are adapting technology for their students. The ministry argues that the proposed reforms will work for pupils too by offering them choice, and with that comes the prospect of students becoming more engaged and therefore more likely to do better.
Parata is committed to a "robust accreditation process" that she says will ensure the virtual schools - community of online learning or 'COOL' - perform. Their students will do the same work as pupils in the school system and be required to enrol at their e-school. These measures reflect the indifferent student results from online schools in the United States, and the fact that correspondence results in New Zealand have fallen short of classroom outcomes.
The New Zealand teacher unions have pointed to evidence of failure in the US system as a reason to oppose e-schools here. The ministry believes COOLs attached to schools might be the way to go, as "blended" learning - a mix of online tuition and classroom study could offer students a mix of social connections and teacher-student relationships.
Under the legislation the minister would have the power to intervene in a cyber school which failed to deliver and lay down demands such as achievement goals or assuring pupil wellbeing. The ministry admits that student welfare is an issue for cyber schools, but maintains that accountability rules will protect pupils. The ultimate sanction would be the minister's ability to revoke accreditation of a COOL which consistently lets its pupils down.
These are sensible protective measures for a new system. It is worth a try but will need careful monitoring as it gets off the ground. The architects of education reforms should never lose sight of the fact that the future of those most affected - in this case, the country's pupils - is the reason for the change in the first place.